Monday, December 22, 2008

Where did December go?!!

Bonne Annee!!

I might be a week +++ late, but I’m in Cameroon, and I can keep saying this til at least March!

I’ve been in Mokolo about a scant 5 days in the last month, so no, I did no in fact fall off a moto or get run down by rabid sheep. Peace Corps sent my entire training group down to the beach in the South of Cameroon for a week of in-service training, seemingly their way of saying, thank you for not quitting yet!

Cameroonian transport: The train.

The ruckus all started on the train down to Yaoundé. Apparently, US Marines were in Cameroon to train Cameroonian Marines in “peace-keeping” activities. We got an incredibly up-close demonstration of everything they learned (or failed to learn) while sharing a train car with them on the 16 hr. overnight train ride that crosses the country. For whatever reason, my assigned seat seemed to have been some type of ground zero for the debauchery, seeing as it was located exactly in the middle of the car. Both Cameroonian and American marines flocked from other cars—there must have been 25 of them in the aisle, in addition to those in the seats. As the train crossed the savannah in the night, they only grew louder in singing, dancing, stomping their feet, waving their guns, and downing whiskey straight from the bottle. (Multi-tasking taught in the Marines? Usually I prefer to avoid the combo of booze, guns, and mass transit.) I got some very near views of the gyrating tushes of the Cameroonian marines, as they paraded through the car. At every stop of the train, marines would run off to reload on beer, whiskey, all of the above. When it became clear that no one in our car was going to get any decent sleep, I pulled out the couple of whiskey sachets I had left in my bag from the night before’s outing. The American Marines seemed to go wild when they saw I had the rankest, cheapest whiskey available on the Cameroonian market. This of course opened the discussion of “You know we’re volunteers who make next to no money? Of course I drink cheap whiskey!” This evolved into a whole discussion of what the Peace Corps is, and does. (My old dentist in DC had thought Peace Corps is an arm of the US military. These guys as well had assumed we were some type of kin Corps...) So this whole ruckus was all very entertaining… until about 2:30 in the morning! After finally letting us get a few hours sleep, the Marines were at it again with Reveille songs at 6:30am, prompt. I counted as one of the Americans sucked down six sachets (equivalent of a shot) before the train arrived in Yaoundé at 9:30am—makin Uncle Sam proud! Needless to say, we arrived at the PC office like zombies, and with a newfound love for the United States military corps.

In-Service Training.

Sure training was great and I learned a few new things, + got my motivation up. One of my favorite moments was sitting between my Cameroonian counterpart, (the Secretary Treasurer of my financial institution) and another Cameroonian counterpart. We were at the end of a tedious all-day session. The other counterpart is pounding his hands on his chair, somewhat like an impatient eight-year old, to try to keep himself awake in between making random commentary to me. (Yes Siobhan, you know who this is!!) The topic of the seminar is something along the lines of girls’ education. I was daydreaming… but I awake to hear my counterpart proclaiming, “For 80% of high school girls that are impregnated, it’s one of their teachers that is the culprit.”

Mind you, half of my training group is education volunteers, and they, along with their counterparts (Cameroonian teachers and high school principals) go into an uproar! I don’t know where my counterpart got his handy statistic, but I told him we were going to get jumped on the way out of the session. At least it got every one awake. And truly, it’s sadly too common that grades are exchanged for sex in high schools here—corruption is that pervasive!

A few other highlights of training week were making sand angels on the beach (Think snow angels, but less cold and with lots of sand in one’s pants as a consequence. We had to do something that reminded us of Christmas and winter!), chicken fights in the Atlantic Ocean, and making Martha Washington hairdos. Those were hideous, I promise you. It was our revenge for when all of the boys in our group decided to grow pervy-looking moustaches during training.

Exquisite, non?

Here’s a few other photos/my shameless come-visit-me plug, from the Southern end of Cameroon.

Collaboration projects = Tourism.

After training, I bust off with three other PCVs to work on a collaboration project that had formally been approved by Peace Corps. I was excited to have my friend Courtney up from the Northwest province (which, in spite of its name, is clear across the country!) Our work was intended to deal with women’s’ rights, which is a painfully pressing issue in this country, particularly in the more conservative and underdeveloped Extreme North province. It’s still going to be a great project… let’s just say we didn’t quite make the progress I’d anticipated. Our next few weeks seemed to turn into a concerted study of the best of the Extreme North’s tourism possibilities + Christmas carousing + New Years bruhaha, and of course, my birthday festivities. :)

A few highlights were Rumsiki and Waza National Park. Rumsiki looks like moonscape, and reminded me of hiking in Haiti. A couple of times, one wrong step would lead you tumbling down a mountain. With as many rules as Peace Corps has, I’m surprised we weren’t required to wear a helmet while taking this hike. Rumsiki’s right on the border with Nigeria, so as we’re hiking, our guide turns to us to ask “Do you have your visas ready? We’re about to head into Nigeria!” We all give each other startled looks! And before you know it, I’ve been to Nigeria. Looks kinda like northern Cameroon! We ran across a few Nigerians, and either they were faking it, or they really spoke only English and Hausa, as opposed to the French and Fulfulde you’ll find only minutes away in Rumsiki!

Your traditional Cameroonian hut.

A little Nigerian hiking.

Texas longhorns? Please. Meet my new friends.

Rumsiki view.

Waza National Park is near the northern tip of Cameroon. It’s only a few hours drive north of my town, but you can almost see the landscape changing, flatter and with scrubbier bushes, as you move closer and closer to the Sahara. We rented a car to go through the park. The car, in turn, promptly broke down. Fortunately, this is not lion season, so we ate our picnic lunch and waited for some giraffes to gallop by. Luckily, we broke down in an area that has cell network and weren’t obliged to walk a couple hours to find some non-wildlife life forms. (Yes, it’s happened to other hapless tourists, just not to me!) About three hours after breaking down, our driver was napping under the car out of the sun, our picnic lunch was all devoured, and thankfully, a truck from the Ministry of Forests tools through and collects us! I’m sure it’s against some PC rule, but we had little other option (mount a giraffe?), and so we had one of the best rides ever in the back of the Ministry truck, returning to the parks entrance. That is by far the best way to get in touch with Mother Nature—wind in hair, 4pm December sun, and tunes from David’s ipod to keep us entertained, as we occasionally stopped the truck to hop out and scramble after giraffes. And yes, that was about the extent of the wildlife we saw, no elephants or large hungry cats. Seriously, the best way to describe a herd of giraffes running: surreal. Their legs are so long that they seem to be moving in slow motion. And we did see a few gazelles. I remember Dad telling me that I looked like a gazelle when I used to run down the soccer field. Now having officially seen a gazelle run, I am certain that they look much better than I ever did!

My love to you all, and hope 2009 is starting splendidly. :)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Random Smatterings and Happy Sheep Holidays!

Hola todos!

What is it with me, motorcycles, and Cameroonian holidays?! Yesterday was Tabaski, or la Fête de Mouton, where the Muslim community commemorates the biblical event of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac… until God said, “No no, go grab that sheep instead.” So you better believe I had to put on another too-tight-wonder-from-my-tailor of a skirt, and eat way more mouton than my heart has ever desired! However, instead of burning myself raw this time trying to get on the moto in said skirt, I opted for what 95% of Cameroonian women do—the side saddle ride. I’m no model of coordination, and in spite of thinking I was going to fall right off the moto, I arrived at every sheep-eating festivity intact. This was mainly due to telling the moto drivers “Hakilo hakilo!” “Slow slow!” in Fulfulde. So if I don’t attract enough attention when I put on a full Cameroonian outfit, parade me at 6 kilometers per hour through town, side-saddle on a moto. Guaranteed a good time!

Here’s a few other photos though of what I’ve been up to.

Thanksgiving was sweet—I didn’t have to kill the ceremonial bird! We recruited Brooke’s neighbor Fatty for that chore, for which I was greatly relieved (and thankful!) That’s my first Thanksgiving though, where I’ve heard dinner running around outside (being chased by small children, rather) approximately two hours before eating it. I decided to whip up some hummus, a family favorite, with some special imported chick peas from the regional capital. Somehow, (the peas were rancid, maybe?) it turned out so funny-tasting, that even Brooke’s dog, Winston, wouldn’t eat it. At least Fatty knows how to cook a chicken! Enough boxed wine makes it all go down fine.
Yes, photographed below is the box o’ wine, definitely merited by the occasion. :) Aunt Sue, you better believe the Tony’s you sent me is getting put to good use on that table!! Scary hummus on the right. Brooke’s light was busted, so it was a cozy candlelit theme.

On a non eating-related-holiday topic, Brooke and my predecessor did huge amounts of work during their time in Mokolo on a project to revitalize a local community center. Brooke’s last week in town was spent running around cramming in tasks for the opening of this center (thus all the excited happy faces in the pictures—it had been a long and bureaucratic process!) I’m really excited to have the center as a base for work, a place to teach business classes (hopeful thinking for future projects…), and a non-alcoholic place to meet all kinds of people. Brooke and my predecessor hand-picked the three employees who will work there, so I’ve really enjoyed working with them, and getting pretty hands-on to set up management and accounting systems.
Foos balling with the employees. And yes, that is a Britney Spears poster hanging in the background, despite my objections. Yay, Louisiana.

Yippee!!! (Sweet paint job, huh?)
Brooke, Aboubakar, and Winston the no-hummus-eating dog.
In her last week in town, Brooke went wild around Mokolo with my camera, and you, fair reader get the benefit of the following photos!
Main street, Cameroon.

Grocery shopping anyone? The garlic/condiments aisle.
Your average local butcher, or, advertisement for the Mokolo Vegetarian Society.
Slightly more appealing: a local pagne (fabric) shop, or, what my wardrobe looks like these days.

After bargaining for your fabric of choice, take it to Tailor-man here to leave you looking good.

One of Brooke’s cute neighbors. Check out those knees.

Brooke’s going-away fête. I’ll miss her!

I helped Fleur, our local Frenchie volunteer, with a program the elementary schools put together for World AIDS day (read: chased small children and pinned pieces of paper to their chests.) At halftime of a soccer game, the kiddies paraded onto the field. The letters pinned to their chests spelled out “MOKOLO CONTRE LE VIH/SIDA” … Mokolo against HIV/AIDS. The ABC’s of prevention--Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condoms, were also featured, in the form of 7-year olds wearing the above messages pinned to their shirts. Lastly, came the boy wearing the sign “Dépistage,” or “Getting tested.” As Fleur pinned the sign on cute little Preservatif (Condom), the little girl asked, what does this mean? Hmmmm! Quick thinking, Fleur’s response: “If you use the preservatif, it helps prevent the disease, if you don’t use the preservatif, you are more likely to catch the disease!” Ahh, Sex Ed! Little Dépistage kept running off out of line when we were getting ready for the big half-time show, so I’m calling out “Dépistage, where are you?! …Dépistage, get back here!” I love my job!

Happy holidays to my friends and family, I’m sending my love! Can somebody play in the New Roads gift swap for me, in abstentia? I promise I will bring you back something cool from Cameroon, in 2010. Delayed gratification! :)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hanes in Effigy

List of little things that just don’t happen aux Etats-Unis Part 2: Burning my Underwear.

In the US, when my undies get a little tattered, it’s not a problem to take out my trusty needle and thread. More commonly, however, I just ditch ‘em in the garbage.

Here, however, even the heartiest Hanes can’t seem to stand up to the beating that is hand-washing all your clothes. Scrub, scrub, pound it on a rock. Normally, I would deposit said undies in the garbage, and readily obtain a new pair at local store of choice. Not so here.

Here, garbage is burned. Or at least for the pyrotechnically inclined. (…and then you pray your mama will send you some new sous-vêtements in the next care package!) The first few times I tried to burn my garbage, I ended up with a face-full of smoke, a wasted box of matches, and a minimally smoldering pile of rubbish gracefully adorning my front yard. No candidate for Better Homes and Gardens “Yard of the Year” award here. It seems some people in my family got all the pyrotechnical advantages. (Camille?)

It also seems my neighbor, the Grandmere took pity on me. That or she just likes to sift through my garbage. More recently, my garbage has started disappearing. Lucky me! Seems like a win-win situation. I can now enter the Cameroonian Yard of the Year competition, and Grandmere, who actually knows how to make things burn, gets my garbage.

Except when it comes to holey undies. There are some things that are just not meant to be shared with your neighbors. So, my weekend project… involves sitting over a pair of smoldering underpants. Let’s see how many hours this labor of love will consume. Ahhh, Cameroon!!

PS--Happy Thanksgiving everyone!! :)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tough Spot, Bright Spot.

Recently I’ve been working with a local NGO that coordinates all kinds of development projects. The director had asked me if I would accompany him to visit a nearby village in need of a school. I’m always up for a free moto ride so I agreed.

For whatever reasons, the villagers thought I was the Ambassador of the United States, and one of the village leaders stood up and read a four-page handwritten letter to me (or rather, the Ambassador) asking for my financial help in any way possible… to fund a school, a well, a granary. It was of course horribly awkward, and I had to explain to them that I was not in fact, the US Ambassador, (do Ambassadors wear Tevas?) and I was not a source of financing. In these situations what I do say is “I’m located in the MC2 in Mokolo, and you can come to me any time if you have questions about opening a bank account, getting a loan, or developing any projects you have, as small or large as they might be, even if it’s just buying a couple of goats.”

The only thing that makes these situations slightly less painful is that the US Embassy does have what it calls the Self-Help fund. After I asked the villagers assembled a lot of questions to get a feel for their town, its resources, etc., I told the folks that if they want to apply for a grant from the Self-Help fund, I’d be happy to read over their proposal.

These situations are so humbling to me. Twenty kids are stuffed in a hut, sitting on rocks on the ground, in tattered clothes without a book or a notebook to be found. One chalkboard at the front of the room is the only sign that this is a school. At the same time, I’m angered. I told the NGO director and the village leader that they also needed to be petitioning their own commune and mayor—my government cannot be the band-aid for what your government should be doing. Every time I see certain unnamed Cameroonian government officials on TV, in their lavish presidential palaces living large off this country’s oil revenues, it makes me sick. I have to go do a prison workout to calm myself down. (Ref previous blog.) On the moto ride back, the images I couldn’t help but have flash through my head were of the high-tech Clemson computer labs, the Clemson library, the sparkling new Clemson student center (if you hadn’t guessed it, I went to Clemson University.) I told Brooke yesterday afternoon that living here, the meaning of “life is not fair” has become so very real to me. There are times when I think “man, I’d love to have gone to that fancy expensive liberal arts school, or geez, if I could manage to get into and afford grad school there…” I told her if she ever hears me complain about my educational options, to just smack me.

Bright Spot.

Whew. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are days when I feel useful, effective, motivated. Today, one of Brooke’s Cameroonian colleagues asked me if I could help him better organize his finances and accounting for a huge agro-alimentary endeavor he’s undertaking. This man has an advanced engineering degree in “agro zoo-technologie” from one of the universities in the south of the country (as there are literally no universities in Northern Cameroon.) He’s in the process of constructing a HUGE facility to raise egg-laying chickens. He’s completely spotted a need that he can fill: the north of Cameroon gets its eggs from the southern provinces, which requires three days’ travel in largely unsanitary conditions. Naturally, the eggs here cost at least 75 CFA and are of poor quality, in comparison to the 50 CFA eggs you’ll find in most places in the southern or western provinces.

He took me to the facility he’s constructing today. He’s already invested in an ample amount of land so that he can allow this business to expand, eventually moving into raising meat-chickens. (Sorry, I don’t know the more technical word in English!) So, could we have a more win-win situation? My amigo here is going to make bank in a huge way. I, and all the other protein-hungry folks in Northern Cameroon, are going to get higher-quality eggs at 2/3 the current cost. My friend knows the technology necessary to keep his costs low, and he’s thinking long term. I just hope I can give him the best possible advice regarding his finances. I’m duly impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit. Recently, people like him have been motivating me more and more to consider tacking an MBA on to my studies when I get home. There is so much room for growth in this country, but I think is going to be led by private industry, as the jury is still out on the public sector.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Prison Workout meets Dustbowl.

Add it to the little list of things that just don’t happen aux Etats-Unis (in the United States!)—rolling around in the dust trying to get a workout. (This sounds oddly porcine.)

So when I was in Haiti, I perfected my prison workout routine, seeing that I really couldn’t just go jaunting around the neighborhood (kidnappings hmmmmm). The prison workout isn’t a security-based necessity in the same way here in Cameroon, but it sure helps keep my mental health in balance when I’m feeling a little blobby and don’t want to go running outside.

Recently, however, the phenomenon of the Cameroonian dustbowl has been getting in the way of the prison workout, which I should clarify involves lots of rolling around on the floor, sit ups, pushups etc., anything that can be done within the confines of a small indoor space, ie: a prison cell. When it is so dusty your hands are slipping, or leaving handprints on the ground… that can be a problem. Also to demonstrate the dustiness: I was leaving my MC2 today. It was only about noon, and the motorcycle of my counterpart, Bouba, was parked out front. It was already so covered in dust that I couldn’t resist writing “Hi Bouba!” with a smiley face on the moto’s seat. When our guard looked at me funny, I had to explain to him that this is what 8-yr. olds in the United States do to their parents’ dirty cars.

So now I have to suck it up and start sweeping out my house about once every two days if I want to be able to roll around on the floor in any level of comfort!! Sweeping is tiring! I’ll chalk it up as the Cameroonian aerobic addition to the classic prison routine.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Beans, Beignets, and Barack

Wednesday morning was my most memorable breakfast yet in Cameroon. I’ve never before intermittently thrown my hands in the air and yelled out the name of my new President-elect at 6:45am while sitting on the sidewalk waiting for my beignets to fry. And I wasn’t alone.

I was in the capital city of Yaoundé during elections. About 28 of us Peace Corps Volunteers were assembled there for various meetings. At the PC transit house, we had access to a television, cable, and thus CNN in English!! Pretty monumental. Even the US Embassy’s deputy chief of mission had donated popcorn and a microwave for our election watching festivities.

For better or for worse, the PCVs that night were gathered in unanimity. Not a soul of a McCain voter to be found. Don’t get me wrong, I respect McCain and this blog is not the place for me to get into why I voted for Obama (making that absentee ballot work!) but every single PCV present was rooting for Obama last Tuesday.

Pre-dawn election suspense at the PC house in Yaoundé

The enthusiasm was contagious. We literally stayed up all night until Obama gave his acceptance speech at 6:30am Cameroon time. I feel lucky to have been able to watch history… from Cameroon.

At this point, we couldn’t help but hit the streets, exuberant and semi-delirious from fatigue. The sun had risen during Obama’s acceptance speech, and the news was already on the awakening streets of Yaoundé. About eight of us went for breakfast to the bean and beignet stand on the nearest street corner, and cheered and greeted all the passers by, who seemed equally enthused and amused by our antics. Many of them shared these nassaras’ excitement, with big grins and salutations of “OBAMAAAAAA!!!!”

As a few days have passed, I’ve thought a bit more about the significance of that Wednesday morning celebration.

This hits particularly forcefully as I write from a country that has had the same leader in power since roughly the year I was born. No Cameroonian my age has ever seen a democratic change of power. In fact, no Cameroonian has ever seen a democratic change of power since this country’s independence in 1960. Only two presidents have held office, the second of whom assumed power without the benefit of an election and has held onto that power through some seriously questionable means throughout the last 26 years. (Cameroon does not rank number 141 out of 180 on Transparency International’s worldwide ranking for nothing.)

My neighbor Martine came by tonight and I told her about our elections… “My country just elected a new president, his father is actually from Africa…!” She was clueless, unaware. It was the blank look on her face that really made it hit home: the concept of elections, a word that has a very different meaning here in Cameroon, where my friends believe doors are closed, and old men in suits negotiate to divvy up the seats of their representative bodies.

So whether you are for Obama or McCain, (and being from Louisiana, I know my fair share of loved ones might well be for the latter...!) I ask only that you share in my excitement in our ability to change. And if this is not the result you had hoped for, maybe in four more years you can have a beans, beignets, and candidate-of-your-choice breakfast. I don’t say that to sound snarky, but because as Americans we are able to act without fear or intimidation, to cast ballots that mean something. Meanwhile millions and millions of others watch us, our sidewalk celebrations or our disappointment, and can only wish for such options.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Of course you want to come to sweaty Cameroon!

Several of you (…ok, a few of you) have asked about coming to visit me. I say, bring it on!! While I can’t guarantee you a visit free of sweat, potholes, or friendly leering, I’ll do everything in my power to be the cheery tour guide you’ve always wanted. I’ll even wear a Hawaiian shirt.

PC admin. put together a long and boring list of recommendations for visitors. I’ve tried to shorten it and make it more relevant. Hope this can be useful, and ultimately convince you that there is nowhere you would rather be on your next vacay than the Far North of Cameroon!

1. Visa, Cameroon. To apply for a visa to Cameroon, complete two application forms. I have a copy of the form that I can e-mail you, or you can download it here. Send them to the embassy, 2349 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008, with your passport, two passport photos, W.H.O. records showing the required yellow fever shot (see below), the application fee, a copy of either your tickets or your detailed flight itinerary, and a bank statement. Details about the application fee are included at the above link. Basically, it is $99 for your tourist visa, payable by Money Order or Certified check ONLY to the Embassy of Cameroon. You need to enter Cameroon within 90 days of obtaining the visa, so in your eagerness to visit me, please do not apply for your visa 6 months in advance!

(And they tell me it is hard for Cameroonians to get to the States?!) On my end, I will work with PC admin to obtain a standard PC letter to include with your application materials, which usually speeds up the application process. You’ll need to e-mail me a copy of your confirmed flight itinerary, your passport number, and its date and place of issue.

It is PC’s understanding that the Embassy will not return your passport to you unless you send a pre-paid express mail envelope. If you are in the D.C. area, you can pick it up at the embassy. Separate visas are required for almost all African countries you may plan to visit, except for intermediate stops where you will not go outside the terminal while en route to or from Cameroon. Each embassy requires that you send your passport with the visa application, so you can only apply for one visa at a time.

Visa, Chad. Due to my extremely strategic (?) location in the Extreme North Province, you may want to opt to travel through Chad to see me. This is the preferred method of many of our visitors to the Extreme North and an attractive option because the international airport at N’Djamena is roughly 5 hours from my house, thus you avoid the long sweaty bus trip otherwise required when flying through Yaoundé.

The Chadian government will be delighted to take your money; visa requirements listed here. Consider it your own personal contribution to international development. Here is the required visa form for Chad.

You will need your passport to apply for each visa, so I recommend you start early. You can also consolidate and expedite the visa applications if necessary by going through a private company, such as Travisa, which handles it for you for an additional fee of approximately $30 per visa.

2. Health. A yellow fever vaccination is required. This immunization must be logged in a World Health Organization (W. H. O.) International Certificate of Vaccination.

You should plan to take anti-malarial prophylactic drugs prior to departure from the US and during your stay in Cameroon. Usually you need to start popping these pills a couple of weeks before your departure. You can get mefloquine, my drug of choice complete with psychedelic dreams, in most pharmacies. Another option is doxycycline.

While in Cameroon, precautions must be taken with food preparation and water treatment. Drink only bottled water in sealed bottles or water that has been filtered and chlorinated or boiled. (I have a fabulous water filter you may use free of charge.) Vegetables should be soaked in chlorine if they are not being cooked or peeled.

Here is a site that gives other useful Cameroon health info.

There are health risks, and the medical facilities in Cameroon are not comparable to facilities in the United States. Peace Corps medical Staff cannot provide care for family members or friends who require medical attention while in Cameroon. We strongly suggest that you consider extra insurance with emergency evacuation coverage from a company such as International SOS Assistance, Inc. (P.O. Box 11568, Philadelphia, PA 19116, 1-800-523-8930 or 215-244-1500 in PA).

3. Money. The currency used in Cameroon is the franc CFA. (One USD is approximately 500 CFA.) Travelers’ checks are safe, but incur exceedingly high commission rates and other charges (up to 25%). Travelers’ checks in dollars have also become increasingly difficult to change. You may want to take at least some travelers checks in Euros, since switching dollars to CFA in Yaoundé is usually more expensive than switching dollars to Euros in U.S. and then Euros to CFA in Yaoundé. Some of the big (and expensive) hotels in Yaoundé will accept an American Express or Visa credit card.

ATMs on the “Plus” system are increasingly available around the country. My personal recommendation is to come with your ATM card. ATMs are available in Maroua, the closest large city to me, and I have had no problem using them, the few times I have done so. However, you should call your bank prior to your departure to let them know that you will be using the card in Cameroon, so that they don’t put a block on your account, thinking crazies have made off with your belongings to …Cameroon.

4. Baggage. Have all your suitcases locked. I recommend you call your airline directly to find out what the baggage and weight limits are. You can typically check your baggage all the way to your final destination. Be sure the baggage ticket has all appropriate code letters for the trip; the code for the airport in Douala is DLA, Yaoundé airport is NSI, N’Djamena is NDJ, and the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is CDG.

5. Flight Check-In. If you fly through Paris, arrive at the check-in counter for your connecting flight two hours before take off. They start checking passengers in then and you cannot get a seat assignment until this check-in. The check-in process goes very slowly, so plan to stand in line a long time. They will not allow large carry-on bags.

6. Arrival in Douala / Yaoundé. You must have both your passport and W.H.O. card for immigration when arriving at the airports in Cameroon. French and some English are spoken at these airports (yay bilingual country!) You will have to open all bags for inspection. Try to keep all your bags in sight once they come into the baggage area. There will be men vying to carry your bags for payment. Carry your bags yourself if you can. If not, negotiate a price with one person before allowing anyone to take your bags (about 1$ per bag.)

7. Alternatively, Arrival in N’Djamena, Chad. The volunteers who have previously flown through Chad or sent their families through Chad have established a reputable contact for the purpose of fetching you and bringing you to Cameroon. This is my recommendation. The border crossing between the two countries closes at roughly 5pm; your flight would arrive at roughly 10pm, thus you’ll need to cozy up in an N’Djamenan hotel for a night. I can provide hotel recommendations and approximate prices.

8. Photos. Picture taking is fine, in general, but you should always ask permission before taking anyone's photograph. Although I am unsure of the aesthetic interest of the interior of an airport, photos are never allowed at the airport or any military installation, so please keep your camera concealed when near these locations.

9. Identification. During the course of your stay in Cameroon, you will likely have to show your passport to the police several times. It’s preferable to carry a certified copy of your passport for this purpose. I’ll help you obtain this after your arrival in Cameroon.

10. Departure. Presently, you must pay a departure tax of 10,000 CFA at the Douala or Yaoundé airport before boarding. Check ahead of time, as this tax needs to be paid in local currency, and most likely you would need the exact amount. There is no separate departure tax when flying out of Chad.

Bon voyage!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Goals 2 and 3

Neighborly integration at the expense of my gastro-intestinal system

Hallelujah I’ve finally met the neighbors! I’ve been here over a month and been craving a little more neighborly interaction.

Normally in the US I’m not timid or self-conscious. That’s a whole ‘nother ball game here. I’m constantly asking myself “Am I being offensive? Or Stupid? Is this showing too much upper arm!?” Questions like that get in the way of the most basic marching to the compound behind mine and introducing myself. I also have no idea if my neighbors speak French or not, and whether I’ll be greeted with blank stares and foreign gurglings.

At night I can hear the neighbors speaking in I-have-no-clue-what language, and laughing. Families laughing seem kind of rare here, which makes me doubly curious to meet them. A little wall separates our two compounds, and sometimes I peer over the wall from my front porch to get a peek at the other side. Literally, my bed must be 20 feet from their kitchen. During Ramadan when they would wake early to prepare the pre-dawn meal, I’d inevitably wake up to the 4am clanging of pots and women’s voices.

Today, a Wednesday, I just did not want to go to work at the MC2. I can only take so much of watching people foible through Excel spreadsheets and not having enough time to answer my questions, before I want to bang my head into a wall. So I decided that instead, I was going to stay home and work on goals 2 and 3 of the Peace Corps, aka, neighborly integration. The three goals of the Peace Corps go something like this:

1—Share technical skills and competencies

2—Learn about Cameroonians and help other Americans learn about Cameroonians

3—Help Cameroonians learn about Americans

So any time not spent constructively imparting Excel knowledge, or otherwise revolutionizing the country, I can chalk up to Goals 2 and 3. It makes me feel a little better about being here when the going is slow on Goal 1.

I was determined to see who the family is that is probably hearing me snore! I walked out of the compound and plopped down on a pile of rocks. I share my compound with a wrinkled old lady affectionately referred to as Grandmere, and a teenage girl, Martine. Martine and Grandmere were sitting outside on the rocks as well, and a gaggle of ladies was sitting across the street. I started asking Martine names. There are more snotty-nosed and naked-bottomed kids running around than I will ever be able to remember.

It turns out the Grandmere is a real hoot. I hear a lot of laughing from their part of the compound at night, too. Martine says it’s cause people come over just to listen to the Grandmere and her commentaries. Grandmere speaks strictly no French, limited Fulfulde, and has about four functional teeth. Her native language is Mafa, one of the local languages with lots of guttural mushakahrashaka sounds. Grandmere informs me that she must be 150 years old. Martine’s mom is roughly 50 years old. I see why Grandmere is so amusing. It’s market day again and a constant stream of people are passing by, from which Grandmere buys some guavas. She doles out guavas to the five congregated kids and me. No way has this little citrus seen the Peace-Corps-recommended contents of a Clorox solution. I will certainly be hosting an all-night amoeba dance party in my stomach.

Martine invites me to go see a friend of hers in the neighborhood. Martine’s dad, who lives in another village, says he doesn’t have the money to send Martine to school. So she doesn’t have much to do during the day but hang out with Grandmere and some of her friends. Martine is 19 and I think she’d be in the equivalent of about freshman year of high school.

Arriving at Martine’s friend’s house, we somehow start talking about marriage. Martine has already said no to a couple of marriage proposals—she’d rather finish school first. One was from our neighbor across the street, a crazy old man with a long beard who already has two wives and kids of all ages. She said that when he last came over to her house she had hid inside while Grandmere told him she wasn’t there. Universally functional strategy. Apparently, he wants to marry me too, and Martine reports that he’s inquired with Grandmere about my availability. I plan to tell him that I already have a couple of husbands. Dad, what do you think?

Additionally, Martine doesn’t want to get married because she says in her village men beat the women too much. After drinking bilbil, (the local millet beer) they come home and start knocking the women around. “Ma mere a trop souffert,” she tells me. “My mom suffered too much.” What can I say? She’s surprised when I tell her that people go to prison in the US for beating their wives.

Martine’s friend’s brother is about 6 years old. During the course of the wife-beating conversation, he’s been dancing and hiding behind a wall, intermittently poking his head out, making a growly face complete with eyes rolled back in his head, and holding up claw hands. I tell him he looks like a dinosaur. Realizing it’s way too complicated to explain what a dinosaur is, I decide to go with “a large hungry lizard.” The Hungry Lizard takes a break from dancing around the room to run outside and steal some green beans from a neighbor’s plot. When his older sister scolds him he giggles, dances, munches on the green beans and says, “They can send me to prison! I’m going to steal some more green beans!” and he giggles back out the door.

After we leave the friend’s, another friendly old grandma in the neighborhood calls us in to drink bilbil. This is the stuff of Peace Corps Medical Office nightmares. Who knows what fillers gets added to the bilbil, and what critters are living in that water. Today it’s my stomach, as opposed to the lower right leg, that is gonna take the hit in the name of integration. At least my moto burn is almost totally healed by now!

The ubiquitous bilbil shack—a traditional mud hut with a thatched roof—is the Extreme North’s answer to America’s Starbucks. Martine and I sit on a log on the ground and sip bilbil out of calabashes that the grandma doles out. A skinny old man wearing the teal high school uniform decides to take a break from the bilbil and do a little dance for us. “Fifty CFA!” he says, “I’m not dancing for nothing!” We laugh (although I don’t even understand what’s going on at this point) and he jigs his way out the door. No dancing old men in Starbucks last time I checked. After we finish and exit, Teal-Uniform Dancer is still outside, and upon seeing me, breaks into another little jig. I respond with a little tap-dance of my own. The neighborhood cheers.

We get back to our compound, and I decide to pull out my Fulfulde flashcards while Martine sits in the shade, and Grandmere takes a nap. I think I’m going to offer them some of my next creation from the kitchen. I’ve been getting pretty good at banana bread. I just hope it doesn’t scare them off permanently.

So I’m encouraged at the progress on goals 2 and 3 today. Let’s just hope my stomach shares that sentiment, in the name of integration!

Thursday, October 16, 2008


What do you eat?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this! My gourmand South Louisiana family in particular seems to be scoping out the Cameroonian culinary options, so this one is for you guys.

Technically, I should split this category into two: What do Cameroonians eat? … and then, what do I eat in Cameroon!

Cameroonians: Blobs really do seem to be a recurring theme in Cameroonian cuisine, mostly consumed in the form of couscous. That means take any grain, mash it up, then cook with water. Corn for example. The other day I heard a repetitive thunking sound outside my window. I looked outside and I saw my neighbors, three women, gathered around a huge version of a mortar. Each woman was holding what looked like an oversized pestle. The women were going around the circle, taking turns thrusting the giant pestles into the container to mash the corn. I actually have a wall hanging that shows this exact scene, but I had never seen it before myself! Sorry I didn’t get the real-life version, but here is the wall hanging, which will have to suffice for now.

Once your grain of choice is mashed it’s cooked with water and molded into the blobs. That’s couscous! So corn couscous = grits. I’ve eaten couscous of rice, millet, and manioc, a fabulously flavorless root vegetable, which also has the disgusting quality of being “gluant.” The best way to translate that is—rubber cement. I haven’t met an American yet who likes it. One of my sisters (although unnamed, Family, I think you can guess which one!) likes to eat with her hands. Well she will love it in Cameroon. The Cameroonians go at the couscous, and most other solid foods, with their bare hands. Couscous is typically served with a sauce. You tear off chunks of the couscous blob, dip it in the sauce, and enjoy. The first time I, in my American rationale of “it all ends up in my stomach anyway”, mixed together couscous and sauce in one plate, with a fork, the Cameroonian I was with was disgusted. I’d obviously just arrived. He told me that he knows Cameroonians who would get up and walk away from the table if I did that. So remember: keep couscous and condiments separate.

There are a variety of sauces to go with those couscous-es. Think mix and match! Tomato-y meat sauces, tasty green sauces made with leaves I don’t recognize, delicious spicy peanut sauces. My neighbors spend huge amounts of time plucking the leaves off of plants, which they then dry in the sun to form the base of the sauce. For a protein-plus variation, throw in a few beans with your leaves. But at all costs avoid gumbo sauce. Gumbo is Cameroonian French for okra, not to be confused with the delicious brown Louisiana soupy substance. Gumbo is slimy as hell. The absolute worst is couscous de manioc with gumbo sauce—it is Sticky coated with Slimy and guaranteed to make you not as hungry as you thought you were.

Okra drying in the sun for gumbo sauce. Steer clear.

Red millet drying against my house. They also make a local beer out of millet, called bilbil. Not bad.

Beans and beignets are the breakfast of local champions. Just on my way in to work, there are about five different women selling B&B on the side of the road—amazing motivation to get out of bed! Beef, broth, and beignets are also a basic breakfast. In the category of “things you never knew you could put in your omelet,” … add spaghetti. Spaghetti omelets seem to be all over the country. I was so skeptical at first but they are incredibly satisfying!!

Here's a typical kitchen in my area: source of all the above described goodness. Outdoors, with a traditional three-stone fire. The pot sits on stones and wood burns underneath. (This is my neighbors' place, with whom I share my compound.)

That's corn dangling in front of the door, hanging out to dry.

A few other ‘Roonian basics: since the Fulani people are herders, we’ve got cows! The beef here is good! Peanuts abound. I can get fresh nuts, fresh-smooshed peanut butter sold in handy one-serving plastic sacks, or another concoction that is the Cameroonian version of a Power Bar. It’s a dried up, pencil-shaped stick made of peanut paste. It feels like sheer protein and costs next to nothing. Lastly, only in Mokolo it seems, we have tofu! I finally found the non-berry-blob version of it. It’s called awaara, and I think I am going to eat it for lunch every day for the next two years.

Lastly, somehow in spite of the abundance of cows, the closest thing we have here to cheese is called the “La Vache qui Rit.” The Laughing Cow. Just why is she laughing?! It’s some semblance of dairy, wrapped in aluminum packets, with a cartoon girly cow on the front of the package. That stuff has scared me ever since I first saw it for sale on the sidewalks of Haiti. If it can survive the tropic sun, it’s not cheese, and I see why that cow is laughing!

And then, there is what I eat, your typical Peace Corps Volunteer. All that corn mashing and pounding? No thank you, I just make popcorn, with salt and sugar on it. That’s a trick I learned while in training, and who knew how amazing it is! Wood burning stoves? I’m lucky to have gas and a burner. I’m getting good at making breads: banana, peanut butter, rosemary, sweet potato. Recently, I delved into soups: tomato, potato, eggplant. Why anyone would eat hot soup in the middle of the desert is beyond me. I do it anyway. It’s true that every thing takes longer to prepare here—there are no shortcuts, but I get by just fine. So, now you have the added bonus of knowing you won’t starve if you come to visit me! And to those of you with a culinary inclination, feel free to send any good and simple recipes my way!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Embarrassing Confessions

I can’t believe I came to Cameroon and have totally fallen for an American TV show. When we left training, I had thirty-six new movies on my external hard drive, courtesy of swaps with other trainees. However, I made a vow to myself of no movie-watching during my first three months at post. That’s because I have plenty of work-relevant materials I should be reading… not to mention that whole cultural-exchange/get-out-in-the-community objective of Peace Corps….

Yet, I was at Brooke’s house recently, and happened upon some other PCVs watching episodes of the NBC show, The Office. I’d heard of it, but didn’t know what the big deal was. Out of solidarity, I joined. I was painfully hooked in about three episodes. (I do a lot of things out of solidarity, don’t I?!)

I subsequently obtained from Brooke seasons 2 - 4 and watched a solid eight episodes, lasting til four in the morning on a recent Saturday night, just so I could get to the finale of season 3! I think about the characters’ love lives more than my own. Something is wrong with this picture. When Brooke and I go out for our jogs, I’m analyzing the play-by-play of the episodes I’ve most recently finished. Cameroon is a bilingual French/English country… maybe I can find some local English speakers/fellow viewers, and disguise my obsession as part of a cultural exchange...

I’ve never even owned a TV in the states! What am I doing here?! Embarrassing. That show is hilarious though, and it reminds me a little of the tedium of my first job out of school at the Census Bureau. Except I never worked with quite such… characters.

What a relief—I’m done with all the episodes now, and can get back to Cameroonian reality. My neighbors will no longer have to wonder why the nassara is laughing so loud, all by herself, at weird hours of the night.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Happy End of Ramadan!

Tuesday was Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sex during daylight hours. In Mokolo, it means you see a lot of people lying around under trees during the day because they are so sapped of energy. In true PC fashion, I’d joined in a little solidarity during Ramadan and had fasted… once… it was a Friday. It felt like my Islamicized version of Lent.

So although I had by no means shared in the trials of Ramadan, I still got to enjoy the fête! No one went to work Tuesday, and Brooke and I started the day by walking out to a huge field outside of town. The field is only used once a year for the prayers on this particular day. I’ve never spectated at another religion’s holy days. I realized that as many different variations of Christian retreats I’d attended with various middle school friends, I’d never been to a religious event where I was completely outside the realm of participation. I remember going to mass at Sacre Coeur cathedral in Paris and being irritated at tourists who trouped through in the middle of the mass.

So I wasn’t quite sure how to ogle the proceedings. Fortunately, some of the local non-Muslims were also gathered to watch. As hundreds of Muslims lined up in the field to pray, we stayed atop a little ridge on the side of the road. There must have been a few thousand assembled. All the men and boys lined up in the front and made up the majority of those present. The men all had on their best boubous for the occasion, the long flowing garments, and little round caps. The boubous came in a plethora of blues and whites, a few seafoam greens, salmon, even a couple of bright turquoise and one lucky dude in hot pink. I had to hand it to a seven year old boy who really took the cake for the best boubou award. His was purple, dyed with pink polka dots. His little skull cap was teal, and a set of yellow flip-flops completed the ensemble. His mama will not lose him in a crowd.

The women and girls lined up in rows in the field behind the men. Their pagne was brighter, in more of the traditional prints. Even with the babies strapped on their backs they knelt down in the same prayers. I think a baby would fall off my back kersplat into the sand.

The faithful were packed in neatly and close together. When the formal prayer calls began, it was beautiful to watch the up and down movements of thousands in unison. When everyone was bent over, head on the sand in mid-prayer, it was a vast sea of color. The rows on rows of textiles reminded me of an endless outdoor fabric store, dotted with only a few trees at the far edges.

When the prayer finished, kids streamed from the field, running excitedly across the street, sand still pressed onto their foreheads. The dirty foreheads reminded me vaguely of Ash Wednesday in South Louisiana… but on speed. I had no idea what was going on, but then realized there were yogurt and juice vendors set up across the street, and the month of fasting was now officially over.

From there, Brooke and I proceeded to get our fête on. We’d been invited to four different houses to break the fast. After only the first house, we were lying on her friend Aboubakar’s bed, holding our bellies and digesting. One down, three to go! Fortunately, the second destination was only light snacks. Number three was a full-blown feast, with more proteins than my body knew what to do with. Finally, I got a reprieve when one of my co-workers who’d invited me over for feast #4 was still out making his own rounds. Like Thanksgiving times four. As if there weren’t already enough food in circulation, kids go from door to door to collect candy. Like Halloween, but everyone wears the same costume: boubous. I caught a picture of these little goblins in the mini—bous when they came by our friend’s place.

Lastly, to commemorate my first Ramadan, I got my first Cameroonian tattoo. Cameroonian ladies all put on their nicest pagne dresses at Ramadan. I am always wearing pants, to keep the flashing-on-a-bicycle down to a minimum. But for the big day, I’d pulled out one of body-loving tight tailored Cameroonian skirts. Here’s the only pictures I have of me in my get-up. (Note: Scaring small children is not typically a part of Ramadan festivities.)

In the beauty of my full ensemble, I tried to mount a motorcycle, somewhere between feasts number 2 and 3. Try being the operative word. After take one didn’t work, I hiked up the skirt even more and jumped on, sizzling my leg on the tailpipe in the process. I promise this would never have happened in my practical pants! Peace Corps Medical Office had warned us that a huge percentage of us get these burns over the course of our two years here, cause we take so many motorcycles to get around. So for Ramadan, I got branded, my first official second-degree burn, taking up a cute chunk of my lower right leg. This is the price I pay for integration. Happy fête de Ramadan! :)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Just another market day

Some mornings my life doesn’t seem so different from anything in the United States. I wake up, put on the exact same blouses and pants I used to wear in DC, and I ride my bike to an office, just like DC real-job days.

Some afternoons, however, get more interesting.

Today was market day here in Mokolo. Just when I think I am starting to learn my way around, buy food without ripping myself off, and not make a nincompoop of myself… well… I prove myself wrong.

One of the best strategies for buying food here is to say how much you’d like to pay for it, then the vendor dishes out the appropriate amount. Donnez-moi cent francs de haricots et cent francs de beignets. One hundred francs of beans and 100 of beignets please. This gets trickier when a) you realize you forgot how to count in Fulfulde and b) you don’t even know the name of the food you want to buy. Mokolo is one of the only towns that produces a foodstuff closely akin to tofu (yes!) It’s hard to find this delicacy outside of market days, so I’d been hoping I could find it again today. While putzing around the market (mind you, Mokolo’s market takes up the space of about 5 city blocks and throbs with people,) I spot a lady selling what I can only hope is my Cameroonian tofu. Most of the villagers who come in on market day don’t speak French. As for my Fulfulde vocab, I’ve got “100 francs” and “50 francs” down, but I was gonna pull out the big cash on the tofu today, 200 francs worth (whopping 40 US cents.) So I point to the orangey blob, hand her 200 francs since I don’t even know how to say it, and… she leaves. I’m a little confused so I stand around like the blanc beacon that I am waiting for her to come back, not quite knowing what else to do. I see a nearby woman break off a bit of the tofu and eat it. So at least I know it’s edible, and not shoe polish. My lady comes back, plastic bags in hand, and carves off a blob of tofu the size of my head. No way is alllll this for me, I’m thinking! Oh it’s my lucky day, and instead of walking away with the fistful of tofu I’d hoped for and anticipated, I’ve got a funny-smelling bag that’s so big it won’t fit in my backpack. Bon.

I make a few other purchases and finally meet up with Brooke for my lunch treat. Boy am I excited to get into that tofu. …If only it were tofu. After I plop my trophy on the table, we break off little pieces of the mystery glob. And pucker. And make faces like “what were you thinking?!?!” It’s kind of berry-esque with a twinge of cleaning product. Brooke takes it outside and asks somebody what it is. Apparently, yes, it’s a berry whose name doesn’t even exist in French, crushed up, and made into a blob for your market-day pleasure! We then fend off a drunkard who comes to us recounting some ill-defined agricultural project he’d like us to finance. Maybe I should have given him Berry Delight to make him go away.

By this time it’s mid afternoon and I am ravished for some protein, so I drag Brooke to a set of huts where I’d earlier spotted beans for sale. And nevermind that 3pm meeting we have scheduled with the Prefet today. I’d already tried unsuccessfully to leave my berry mass in a store, but a small child came chasing after me with the bag, plus my raclette. I should mention that all day long I’d been carrying around one of my earlier purchases, a Cameroonian contraption of a cleaning product—a mix between a mop and a rake, used for cleaning tile floors, (or as a walking stick, or for beating anyone who crosses my path wrong.) Fortunately, we found a small child, the kid of the bean lady at whose hut we’re dining, who was happy to dive into the berry gook. The bean lady mama looked at us like we were crazy. Who would possibly carry around so much of that stuff with them?? C’est un cadeau!” we explain. It’s a present! Everybody loves presents. Berry mess was promptly disseminated among all small children and devoured, and that was one happy happy bean mama. She laughed and told us we were, in fact, crazy. I was so relieved to be rid of it.

After the joyful bean-berry exchange, Brooke and I arrive, slightly late, to a meeting with the new Prefet. A prefet is somewhere between a state governor and a city mayor—a kinda big deal. And I am carrying a raclette. As we sit waiting for Monsieur le Prefet, I feel like that famous picture of the somber farmer posing with his wife and pitchfork. (I had also carried said raclette into the electricity company earlier that afternoon when they menaced to shut off Brooke’s electricity and we had to storm in there, looking as though we would use raclette for the aforementioned beating function.)

My crowning achievement however, and a true feeling of integration, came when it was time to bike home. I’ve learned well from the Cameroonians, as they carry huge sacs, their parents, pipes, bundles of grass, all of the above while riding a bike. So, I craftily put the raclette’s handle through my book-bag straps, with the head sticking out on my right and the long handle jutting out on my left. I may not know how to buy market food yet, but I can officially sport the Cameroonian 5 ft.-wide-load-on-a-bike look. Ca, c’est bien integrée. And as I rode home, raclette-wobbly, I laughed at how I’d thought that just this morning life seemed similar to the DC days.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Which Way?

Today was a TIA moment, as some of my fellow volunteers like to call it. This is Africa.

I live in a calm neighborhood on the edge of a cornfield, about a twenty minute walk from town. I often feel too far-removed from everything, so I spent much of this morning checking out houses for rent that are more conveniently located, closer to town. I have a feeling that that when the 120 degree hot season arrives, if I live more than 5 minutes from urban civilization, I’ll go home after work and stay home. Or fry my skin off. If I live close to town, it’s easy to be that much more involved in my community.

And then my afternoon walk made me think again…

Independently of house hunting, I decided to do some exploring this afternoon. I took off from my house in the opposite direction of town. I’d never gone this way before and had no idea what lay beyond the corn fields. About fifteen minutes into my walk, I realized, there is NOTHING out here. It was vividly beautiful. I walked straight west, toward Nigeria, with the 4 pm sun in my face, setting over the mountains. We’re near the end of the rainy season, and thus the mountains are a rare vibrant green rising from the sandy Sahel.

Occasionally I pass a group of huts. Little children scream “Nassarrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaa!” (whiteyyyyyyyyyyyyy!) after me as though their lives depended on it. They straggle after me for about fifty feet and then lose interest in keeping my power-walk pace. I’m following a dirt path that’s not wide enough to be deemed a road. The path forges a stream, where women somehow are managing to bathe with their clothes on. Skills. They hardly notice my passing, which is just fine with me. If I were to continue in this direction for fifteen miles, I’d arrive in friendly Nigeria. I’m astounded by how different the scenery is in this direction, only twenty minutes from my house. I keep on walking through the fields.

Then I hear the drums. And singing. A rhythmic hollering. Where am I??! And can I get in on this drum circle? I can’t tell exactly where they are coming from, but it’s through the trees to my right—north—invisible in the distance. I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if I strolled up to the gathering. I even hear what sounds like the rara horns of Haiti, long thin horns that bwat out a sole note. I can’t believe I’m twenty minutes from my house, in a totally foreign and perplexing place. Twenty minutes in the opposite direction would have taken me into the center of bustling commercial activity. I’m terribly excited to hear the drums. So often when I’d envisioned living in Africa, I couldn’t help but imagine drums, how much I like them, want to learn to play them, to dance to them, to be hypnotized late at night by them. And I’d almost given up on hearing them at all, they seemed to be only for sale to tourists in the capital.

Just this morning, I’d been house-hunting in town, oblivious of the fields now stretching before me. As I walked back towards home, sun on my back, distant drumming still in the air, I couldn’t help but ask myself, is that convenience of nearby-civilization what I really want? I did come to Africa for something different…

I’m not sure yet where I’ll land, but I’m excited to be discovering and I know today’s won’t be my last trip out into the drum fields.